February 23, 2022

The Descent into Hell: "A Taste of Armageddon" (1967)

Someone once said that hindsight is 20/20.* Now, I don’t think that’s always true, but part of being a cultural archaeologist involves sifting through the detritus left by the past, searching for the clues that give us an idea of how the present came to be. Think of it as operating in the same way that an arson investigator goes about looking for evidence—always asking the question, What happened here? And how?

*In fact, the saying, “Most people's hindsight is 20-20" is generally attributed to humorist Richard Armour.

It’s especially true when it comes to the wreckage of a civilization. How could such a thing happen? We wonder. It’s an especially unsettling time, and try as we might to remain dispassionate, we can’t help phrasing the question in the first person, as if we’re looking in the mirror.

How did we allow this to happen?

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The Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armageddon" 3first aired on February 23, 1967, and it finds the crew of the Enterprise confronted with a confounding scenario: a war in which no shots are fired, but people still die. How can this be?

The planets Eminiar VII and Vendikar have been at war for five hundred years (and you thought the Hundred Year War between England and France was bad). During that time, millions of people have died, casualties of the back-and-forth attacks between the two planets. In fact, shortly after Kirk and company arrive on the surface, another fusion bomb attack occurs, with more deaths resulting. However, the crew has observed no explosions, seen no damage, witnessed no bloody and battered bodies. And then they learn the truth of the situation.

Yes, there was a real war, once upon a time, and there was death and destruction to accompany it. So much so, in fact, that the leaders of the two planets realized what Robert E. Lee had so famously said, that "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." But whereas the American Civil War ended thanks to the determination of Lee's adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, that the best way to end a war is to win it, the war between Eminiar VII and Vendikar took an entirely different tack.* Realizing that neither society can continue to absorb the material destruction caused by the conflict, and apparently resigned to the irreconcilability of their dispute, they opt to make things cleaner, more sanitary, more socially acceptable, by replacing actual battle with a computer simulation, one in which "Attacks are launched in concept [and] casualties established through statistical adjustment." 

*Probably because the woke teachers of the future, having cancelled Lee out of American history, never passed on his prescient observation to future generations.

Kirk takes matters into his own hands, again.
But there's a deadly twist to all this: once the statistical fatalities have been determined, those presumed to have been killed in the attack have 24 hours to show up at a disintegrator chamber to fulfill the terms of the agreement between the combatants. If either side reneges, the other is free to launch an actual attack, complete with all the horror that the leaders have decided is too messy. And there's a deadlier twist, one that provides the impetus for the story's resolution: Kirk and his landing party, as well as the Enterprise and her crew, have been counted among the fatalities, and are told to report to the disintegrator chamber to be killed.

The story, coming as it does in the midst of the Vietnam War, is obviously intended to serve as an allegory on how man has to find a way to settle conflicts peacefully. Therefore, it creates a pair of apparent absurdities: 1) what will the authorities do if you don't show up to be disintegrated? Kill you? and 2) wouldn't it just be easier to find a solution that both sides can live with, especially since they were apparently able to negotiate this crazy computer scheme?*

*Pete Seeger might have written a song called "Waste Deep in the Big Disintegrator" if he'd been in this future.

The answer to the second question is the moral of the story, that as Churchill once said, "Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war."* But what about that first point, that there seems to be little in the way of incentive to voluntarily give yourself up to death? What can the authorities do?

*Since Churchill was a dead white European male, his lesson was obviously never passed on to future generations, either.

Well, they can remind you that disintegration is a hell of a lot less painful than being shot with a phaser, and I think that's a point to this story that's underappreciated, that there is a risk-averse aspect to this future life, one that mirrors our current obsession with avoiding suffering at any cost. Isn't that what euthanasia is about, after all? Far better to simply slip away with a pill or an injection than to experience the pain of a cruel death.

Fortunately, Captain Kirk has always understood this kind of thing; several times throughout the series and subsequent movies, he's stressed the importance of pain and suffering, as well as the need to confront fear and uncertainty, as essential to the human experience. (He makes the point in the very next episode, "This Side of Paradise.") Besides, there's no way he and his crew are going to be subjected to this absurdity. Casting aside the Prime Directive, as he so often does, he and Spock destroy the Eminiar war computer, forcing the two sides to the bargaining table in order to avoid catastrophic bloodshed. Since there's no sequel, presumably the Federation-supplied negotiator, Ambassador Fox, is able to achieve such an agreement, enabling both sides to live happily ever after.

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How did we allow this to happen?

Anon 7, leader of Eminiar VII:
he knows better than you
Some people think there's an element of betrayal in that question, that we have somehow been betrayed by those in charge of preventing "this" from happening. And I'd agree with that. Those people in charge—and we're talking about authority figures, whether they're accountants, ministers, teachers, government leaders, even the president—they're put in a position of trust. We trust them to do the right thing by us, to protect our interests, to do what is best for the common welfare. We trust that the barber or the beautician is going to treat our hair in such a way that small children aren't going to run screaming when they see us coming. And when they don't—when the accountant embezzles from our retirement plan, when our children come home from school unable to read, what have you—then we feel betrayed by them. We trusted you, we say, and you didn't do what you were supposed to do. Not only do we say it, but in this day and age we say it loudly, and we say it publicly. 

But—and there's always a but. . .

Even the most trusted servant isn't given free reign over the household. You check up on him or her, make sure the bank account makes sense, count the silverware once in a while. It's nothing personal, but it's just something you do. You have an obligation to do it. And if that servant takes advantage of you because you didn't keep proper tabs—well, there's a segment of the population, and maybe there's a part of you as well, that's thinking, "You asked for it." Remember the saying, "Fool me once, fie on you. Fool me twice, fie on me." 

How did we allow this to happen?

Those trusted authority figures I mentioned—well, they are servants of a sort. They work for us. And therefore, they require some kind of oversight. From us. And if we allow them to run free, if we refuse to follow through on our obligation, then some of that blame falls on us. 

That can be an uncomfortable truth. It requires us to look in the mirror, and to study what we see. A lot of people would rather not do that. They'd prefer to pass the buck, to put the blame squarely on those authority figures, to say they're one hundred percent responsible for letting it happen. 

After all, How did they let it happen is a much easier question to ask than How did we let it happen.

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There is, though, something more to this story, more than the much-desired happy ending, something that allows us to come full circle to the observation that we started with. Namely, the apparent acquiescence of the people to go willingly, even unquestioningly, to their death—just because the government says so. 

How did we allow this to happen?

It can seem like a psychosis, a mass movement taking over supposedly normal people. We've even developed a word to describe them: sheeple, people who are docile, meekly submissive, easily swayed. One day things are like they've always been, and the next day they aren't. 

People are told they can't go out in public, and the sheeple go along. People are told they can't visit sick or dying relatives, and the sheeple go along. People are told to take an unproven vaccine, to violate the beliefs of their religion, and the sheelpe go along. 

Anyone who asks questions, who dares to disagree—well, they're threatened with having their bank accounts seized, their jobs lost, their children taken away, all for speaking their mind. They're mocked by others, they're beaten by police, they become targets of the last prejudice, Contrary opinions are not allowed, they're told. Resistance is unpatriotic, they're told. They're selfish, they're insurrectionists, they don't deserve to live, they're told.

People are told to go to a disintegrator chamber. And the sheeple go along.

How did we allow this to happen?

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Someone more perceptive than I am compared this to Hans Christian Andersen's fable of the Emperor's New Clothes. You know how that works: the emperor striding through his kingdom in a suit made of material so fine that only the very smart or very competent can see it. None of his subjects wants to be thought a fool, and so they all keep their mouths shut, even though they all know how ridiculous it is, until a child blurts out that this guy's only wearing his skivvies. Well, the Good Book does say that we must have the faith of a child, and that includes the faith to state the truth.

Thing is, there's that uncomfortable truth we talked about. And that keeps some people from speaking up about the emperor.

Some people think it's easier to just ignore what's going on, and maybe it won't affect them.

Some people prefer to keep their mouths shut and not get involved, in hopes that it just goes away. 

Some people believe the emperor must be right, because he is, after all, the emperor, and he knows best.

And some people like the idea that they're part of the elite, that they possess the intellect required to see the emperor's clothes. They're better than the peasants; they're among the privileged few. They get to tell everyone else what to do.

They're the ones who know how we got to this point, how we allowed this to happen.

And unless there's a Captain Kirk out there, there's no going back. TV  

1 comment:

  1. And sometimes we don't just allow it to happen, we vote for it.

    I remember thinking this episode was rather silly the first time I watched it, many years ago. But clearly we've reached the point where it now seems prophetic - and it didn't even take us until the 24th century to get there.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!